In a previous post back in August I talked about how we added a cellular router to our boat and hinted we’d probably be doing more soon. Now we’re doing the next logical step which is to add a cellular booster. While a decent external router / antenna does the job in anchorages where we have okay cell tower reception, a booster does the job in places where we have a very weak signal or barely usable speeds.
There are very few anchorages like that in the San Juans, but there are some in BC and Alaska. It’s worth noting previous excellent writing has been done on this at Seabits.com. I’ll be focusing more on the latest install details plus logistics of where to actually buy this thing from.
First, what is a booster? In simple terms it’s a device that enhances your cellular signal. Before I knew anything about boosters I had a few misconceptions – so you should know: you don’t have to plug your device (phone, router) into the booster and you don’t need a SIM card for it. It doesn’t run on any particular cellular service and the best way to think of it is as a miniature cell tower repeater in your boat. You’re installing an outside antenna to pick up a weak cell tower signal and amplify it through a second antenna inside your boat for a slightly stronger signal.
The WeBoost seems to be the leading player in the cellular booster market for boats, RVs and probably more. The WeBoost Drive Reach is their latest model and what you want – but from there it gets confusing with many variants of this package and many different distributors you can buy it from.
The Drive Reach is the booster itself – the red finned component plus some basic accessories – and the manufacturer packages it with components targeted at cars, trucks, RVs, or land homes – but not boats. They don’t make a marine package, but some of their distributors do bundle it with marine antennas. Different variants of this product name (“Drive Reach Extreme Marine”) are simply marketing terms for packages of additional accessories sold with the Drive Reach. The “marine” ones generally come with an outdoor marine antenna.
- Wilson marine antenna with 20′ cable
- SMB to SMA cable adapter (the booster doesn’t support the type of connection the antenna cable has – because that would be too easy)
Additional items that vary depending on how you’re installing it:
- Antenna rail mount (if you’re mounting it on 1″ rail tubing)
- WeBoost mounting bracket (further comments on this later)
- Blue Sea 1001 Cable Clam (to run the antenna cable through the deck)
While there are various types / brands of cable clams, this is my favorite for this situation because you can pass the cable terminator through without having to cut it or reconnect coax terminators.
Where to Order
WeBoost has a somewhat confusing approach to distribution. You can buy direct from the manufacturer (weboost.com), but they don’t sell a marine kit so it can be somewhat confusing to figure out which parts you need. They also sell through distributors such as WilsonAmplifiers and SignalBooster.com, which do offer a marine package. And they sell through Amazon, at the same prices (afaik) as weboost.com (and no pre-packaged marine kit).
I ordered through a distributor that I’m not going to recommend because it wasn’t a great experience (they sent me the wrong order, making for a 2-3 week delay, and their product images showed a part that they didn’t actually include). The links in this post are Amazon affiliate links (so we’ll get a small blog-supporting referral if you use them) but I’d recommend either WeBoost (direct) or Amazon, or whatever you’re most comfortable with.
Outdoor Antenna Choices
The booster already comes with an outdoor antenna, but most boaters buy a different antenna (usually the Wilson one) which is more weatherproof and easier to mount securely for sustained high winds.
The car/truck antenna that comes included with the package just attaches with double-sided sticky tape. You could certainly try that antenna first and you might still get good enough performance with it as long as you mount it as high as possible on your boat. Personally I would go with the Wilson one because it seems worth the extra ~$125 (antenna + SMB-SMA connector).
Outdoor Antenna – Installing
The toughest choice on a boat is probably where to put the outdoor antenna. Higher is better, and you also want it a few feet away from other antennas and blocking things like solar panels, radar domes, the mast, etc. The antenna also should be vertically oriented – any skew from vertical can decrease the performance.
Ideally I didn’t want to mount it anywhere that could shadow our solar panels – we need every bit of power those can give us. So for now we have it mounted to the side of our bimini frame, with the antenna sticking up just slightly above the bimini (where we have 2 flexible solar panels).
I’ve also heard of some sailors running it up a flag halyard on their mast whenever they need to use it. This achieves great height, improving the chances of getting a good cellular tower connection, but it means you have to stow it each time you go sailing and need a way to run the antenna cable inside to the booster without getting rain inside your boat.
The antenna cable provided is only 20′ – if you want to run it up the mast you’d probably want the 30′ cable they sell. They note there is a tradeoff whenever using a longer cable – signal loss along that cable length increases. So I believe they don’t recommend going any longer than 30′.
To mount the antenna to our bimini frame (1″ tubing) I used this mount:
I like this one because it can be pivoted to any angle (unlike some other rail mounts), which is important on a diagonal bar of our bimini frame in order to have the antenna vertical. It’s also high quality 316 stainless.
The booster has 3 connections to it (outside antenna, inside antenna, power supply) and one LED light which can indicate whether it is turned on or in a reduced boost mode due to interference from nearby cell towers. I don’t think we’ll need to look at this LED light often (we’ll know whether it’s on by whether we’ve turned on the switch at our main panel, and we won’t be running it when we already have strong cellular signals – which is the situation that could cause interference).
So my preference is to mount it out of sight, in some hard to access space where it won’t take away from our living space or storage space. Easy-to-access spaces are high priced real estate on a 38′ sailboat. So I’m mounting it in our starboard lazarette, upside down under the cockpit coaming.
Unfortunately, I realized my booster came without the handy mounting plate that Steve at Seabits showed in his post! The distributor actually shows the mounting plate present in the product images for what I ordered (their marine kit), but when I reached out to WeBoost they explained it only comes with the RV version of the WeBoost. This is a consequence of WeBoost not actually producing a marine kit, and distributors get to decide what makes up a marine kit. WeBoost customer service is very helpful though and is sending me a mounting plate.
So if you’re ordering a kit I recommend you make sure it includes a mounting plate or order one separately – or complain nicely to WeBoost and they might just send you one for free!
The WeBoost comes with a cigarette plug style 12v power cord, designed for cars which would typically power it that way. Boaters may want to cut the cord and wire it directly to an electrical panel switch. WeBoost support said they don’t usually recommend that but said it should be okay if you must.
One other problem with the cord is it has bulky attachments which may be tricky to pass through wood or fiberglass bulkheads if you’re mounting the booster in a different compartment than your electrical panel – in that case you almost certainly would need to cut off the cig plug.
This ended up not being a problem for me. And I was already planning to install another 12v cigarette plug anyway, as we find them useful for charging various devices, so I’ll just use that when we need it.
If you prefer installing direct to your electrical panel you could purchase their hardwire power cord:
However that’s one more thing to buy, and it appears it’s the same as the cig plug power cord except they’ve cut the cord and done the wire stripping for you. If you have basic electrical skills, I would just do that myself.
Installing the inside antenna is pretty easy, but you do want to make sure it’s located far enough away from your outside antenna to not cause interference. WeBoost says that horizontal separation is more effective than vertical separation – so if your outside antenna is 8-10′ aft of your inside antenna that should be fine, but if you’re planning to have your inside antenna at your nav station and the outside antenna above it (ex, mounted to your dodger frame) that may not work.
Also I noticed in testing that moving away from the inside antenna causes a fast drop in signal strength – so if possible you want to station your cellular receiving device (your phone or mobile router) very close to the inside antenna – within 1 foot ideally. This is where having an LTE wifi router, as opposed to just a phone broadcasting a wifi hotspot, can really help.
We haven’t tested this much yet so we’ll have to wait till we get to some remote anchorages with weak cellular reception. The only real downside to a booster, other than the cost, is that it does use some electrical power (in testing so far it looks like it uses about 1 Amp/hr). And you’ll need to find a place to install it.
WeBoost seems to be the defacto choice in the cell booster market and the product itself is well designed – one shortcoming is the installation and purchasing is made way more confusing than it needs to be. If WeBoost decides to add an official marine / boat kit, they could do away with a lot of the confusion and unnecessary parts that come with the kit, providing a standardized set of components.